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Certification Update

A look at the current status for group fitness, personal training, yoga and Pilates.

There is much talk about certification, accreditation and licensure in the fitness industry today. As you start your career, it is important to have a grasp of this trio of topics because they can affect your ability to get hired and work legally. Just the terms themselves and their word cousins can be very confusing—so confusing, in fact, that this article includes a glossary to help you navigate through and clearly understand the differences among them.

Where do you stand on these topics? Why should you care? What does it take to get hired? What is the difference between a foundational or “basic” certification and a specialty certification? How important is it to know the difference? These and many other questions are answered in this research article.

Basic Certification for Group Fitness and Personal Training

A basic certification is a piece of paper which verifies you have passed an exam demonstrating that you have a base level of knowledge about current research and training methods in your chosen field.

Most health clubs now require their trainers and group fitness instructors to hold a basic certification, preferably awarded by certifying agencies that have achieved third-party accreditation. Third-party accreditation establishes standards so the fitness industry can regulate itself, ensure that fitness professionals are qualified, and protect clients and health clubs. Trainers and instructors who have gained a certification from an accredited certifying agency can walk in the door of almost any fitness facility and prove a basic level of competency. One way to understand the difference between accredited and certified is to keep in mind that programs are accredited, trainers and group instructors are certified.

In-House Training and Certificates

Many facilities and universities offer their own internally developed education programs, ranging from learning essential teaching or training skills and memorizing “brand” choreography, to several-year programs with courses in anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, nutrition, teaching skills, labs and supervised internships. To get hired at some of these places, you may be expected to take the in-house training and have a basic certification; for others it could be either/or.

Specialty Certificates

Within the broad categories of group fitness and personal training, there are many ways to specialize by taking specific training courses (yoga and Pilates are addressed separately below). This would include step, dance-based courses, indoor cycling, indoor rowing, aqua, boxing, group strength training, kettlebells, Drums Alive®, TRX® Suspension Training®, Beaming™, BOSU® and a whole host of others.

Some new fitness professionals get one of these specialty training courses first, get enthused about the industry and go on to obtain the basic certification and begin working in the field. This is the less-common and less-recommended path, as it is considered to be a little like putting the cart in front of the horse. But it can be done this way. The more logical, common and industry-accepted path is to get the basic certification first, then start to pick areas of specialization.

For example, as part of its minor program for group fitness instruction and/or personal training at the University of California, Santa Barbara, students are encouraged to take either the American Council on Exercise (ACE) group fitness certification exam or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) personal trainer certification exam as part of earning the minor degree. During training they start to get a feel for what specialties most appeal to them and can start signing up for specific programs. Some go on to work only with older adults, while others may fall in love with various boxing formats; whatever forks they take, all the students in the minor program start out on the same road—certification.

Closing the Gap

One “gap” for new fitness professionals is the divide between the written certification exam and practical skills. Specialty programs all offer practical skills for specific disciplines, but it is harder to find the essential foundational skills, such as those offered at some academic programs (although they do exist).

The IDEA Certificate Program is a new training progression that offers multimedia instruction as well as a practical video review. Similar to the minor track at UCSB, this is a foundational skills program that complements other education and training. It also helps personal trainers make the leap from working one-on-one to leading small-group workouts. This video-based course came about in response to program directors’ frustration with the lack of basic knowledge among many job applicants.


Some yoga instructors have a background or certification in group fitness or personal training, but it isn’t necessary. You can become a yoga teacher independently of the other disciplines. The standards on the Yoga Alliance website (www.yogaalliance.org) are generally accepted by the industry worldwide. The Alliance is a professional association which maintains a central teachers’ registry that recognizes and promotes teachers with training that meets the alliance’s standards. To become listed as a “RYT®” (registered yoga teacher) or “E-RYTSM” (experienced registered yoga teacher), you must have at least 200 hours of training and experience, all at the same school. To get the minimum of 200 hours, you can attend a yoga training school listed on the Yoga Alliance site (more than 1,000 schools are listed). Both the teacher and training school registries are promoted to the public and organizations that employ yoga instructors.

Of course, it is not an industry or government requirement that you pursue this avenue; many facilities will hire you based on a successful resume, interview and demonstration of your abilities, but keep in mind that most facilities will only consider teachers registered with the Yoga Alliance.

Yoga Licensure and Exams
Some states require training schools, not instructors, to carry a license (e.g., Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona), but rules vary from state to state. Prior to enrolling in any yoga teacher training, you would be well-advised to verify whether a) you live in a state that requires schools to be licensed, and b) your chosen school is licensed if you do.

New York state has many yoga programs, teachers and participants. In April 2009, state regulators sent notices to about 80 schools, stating that the state was immediately requiring schools to be licensed, with fines of up to $50,000 for noncompliance. In March 2010, Governor David Paterson signed a measure exempting yoga schools from the law. In the year interim, some schools closed and many aspiring yoga teachers could not obtain or complete their training while the regulation was in limbo. Though New York no longer requires a license, the situation illustrates the need for due diligence before choosing a training school.

Patty Kearney, a professor of health and exercise science at Bridgewater College in Virginia and a yoga teacher with multiple certifications, supports school licensure that “enhances the quality of teacher training programs and protects students’ investment,” yet she is concerned about the fees. To educate the yoga community, she created a blog that discusses licensing issues. Kearney also is the author of a proposal that outlines content for a national exam for yoga teacher certification (http://yogarequirements.wordpress.com/proposal-for-a-national-exam-for-yoga-teacher-certification/), in which she advocates for a consistent method of assessment that would be in conjunction with graduation from a Yoga Alliance Registered School.

“Even though there are many different forms of yoga,” she states, acknowledging that creating a standardized test for such a diverse discipline is a hard task, “there are two things all practices have in common—one is the human body; all yoga instructors should study anatomy and physiology, not just yoga instruction, and the second is yoga philosophy.” Her advice to aspiring yoga teachers: Find a program you like and take a class there. Verify whether it’s licensed if your state requires it. See if the school is registered with Yoga Alliance. Make sure the training includes anatomy and physiology, not just yoga instruction. Get the RYT® designation. Then stay current. Kearney also recommends a book by Donna Farhi titled Teaching Yoga.

In an article for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, titled “An Overview of Regulatory Issues for Yoga, Yoga Therapy, and Ayurveda” (2010), Daniel Seitz notes that the ongoing discussion about registration, credentials and certification for yoga is “an implicit acknowledgement that the forward movement of a profession, at least in the U.S., requires creating a professional regulatory structure and identity.” So if you are considering a future as a yoga provider, note the potential for further regulation, whether internal (the yoga profession) or external (government).


When it comes to accreditation and certification, the Pilates world is a bit further along the “paperwork trail” than the world of yoga. Similar to the Yoga Alliance, the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA) is a professional association whose mission includes establishing certification and continuing-education standards and advocating for educational standards for those who follow the teachings of Joseph and Clara Pilates.

According to Ray Infante, communication coordinator for the Miami-based PMA, the alliance is in the process of “constructing the necessary documentation for application to the NCCA.” Because it’s an involved and demanding project, Infante cannot put a specific date on when the PMA’s certification program will finish going through the accreditation process.

Bear in mind that although the PMA is the only Pilates-related organization currently seeking NCCA accreditation, it is not the only way to become an employable, trained instructor. For example, STOTT PILATES® has trained over 25,000 Pilates instructors in 94 countries. Its process consists of an in-house comprehensive written and practical exam (the PMA exam is written only).

“We are diligently working toward a collective stand on certification with others in the industry and finding a consensus for an acceptable standard for all certification,” says Lindsay G. Merrithew, president and CEO of STOTT PILATES®. “The final, most critical step for quality instructors is certification and continuing education.” For a detailed, easy-to-understand explanation of some of the differences and crossovers, go to www.stottpilates.com/accreditation/faq3rdParty.html#Anchor-Who-49575

Group Exercise: Preparing for a Specialty

Do your homework first if you want to be an indoor cycling, step, kettlebell, kickbox, BodyPump™or any other type of “specialty” group exercise instructor. The same goes for obtaining a personal trainer position. Just because you get a certificate in a specific program, does not mean you will get hired without the underlying foundation certification (i.e., ACE, ACSM, etc.). Before signing up for a slew of appealing specialty program courses, call the facilities in your area where you think you want to work, and ask what they require just to “get in the door.”

Ask these four questions:

  1. Do you require a certification from an organization such as ACE, AFAA, ACSM, NASM, NSCA, etc.) to be hired to teach group fitness classes or work as a trainer? What if I have a university degree or certificate/minor from in a related field?
  2. Do you require previous related experience?
  3. Do you require either an in-house or previous internship?
  4. If I do not yet have a certification, but plan to get one, would you hire me based on obtaining the certification within a specific amount of time?

Defining the Terms Surrounding Certification

Here are a few definitions that may make it easier to spoon through what can become a complicated alphabet soup of terms on this topic:

  • Accreditation; Accredited. A third-party, administratively independent organization grants accreditation to a certifying body when that body submits evidence of meeting identified certification programs standards. One way to understand the difference between accredited and certified is to keep in mind that programs are accredited; trainers are certified.
  • Certificate Program. A certificate program is a knowledge- or curriculum-based program that supplies education followed by a test based on the course’s learning objectives. Drums Alive® is an example of a certificate program.
  • Certification Program. A certification program is developed according to identified standards, has independent education or exam preparatory resources, and uses a stand-alone exam with questions based on an identified profession. A certification organization can offer educational materials for prospective candidates as long as that agency’s materials are not a required prerequisite to obtain the credential. The ACE exam is an example of a certification program.
  • Certification vs. Certificate. Another way to understand the difference between these two is that certification affirms a knowledge and experience base for practitioners in a specific field, whereas a certificate recognizes further study of a particular aspect within a field.
  • Continuing Education. Continuing education consists of ongoing professional-development courses that meet standards set by a certifying body. After earning certification, a trainer or instructor must show proof of participating in a specific number of continuing-education courses in order to renew and maintain that certification (the number is set by each organization). Many certificate programs qualify as continuing-education courses.
  • License; Licensing. With mandated licensing, regulations overseen by a government body require practitioners in a specific field to obtain permission to practice from a board or other regulatory body after proving they have met certain qualifications. In any state or country that mandates licensing, no one by law is allowed to practice without that license.

An important distinction to keep in mind is that certifications are voluntary and are managed and overseen by the industry itself, whereas licensing is mandatory and government regulated.

  • Registry. A registry, which works on a principle of self-regulation, is a type of database that recognizes the achievement of exercise professionals against agreed standards. While a registry is not an accrediting or certifying body, it can require that anyone wishing to be listed on the registry show proof of certification. For example, Yoga Alliance maintains the Yoga Teachers’ Registry and the Registry of Yoga Schools to recognize and promote trained teachers and schools that meet their standards.
  • Standardized. An industry or practice is standardized when regular and proper principles and norms are identified and articulated for it. Standardizing something requires the inclusion and participation of a broad base within an industry.
  • Standards. Standards are a set of skills and a body of knowledge derived from the norms and best practices of an industry. Using the properly applied principles of psychometrics, these standards may be used to generate testing, objectives and exams that are valid, reliable and free from bias.

Comprehensive list of certification/training organizations.

Information about fitness-specific univeristy/college curriculums.

Legislation seeks licensing of personal trainers

Bills have been introduced in several states that would require personal trainers to obtain state licenses to practice. According to Richard Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in Indianapolis, as of early 2010 “there was more fitness professional licensure activity at the state level than ever before.”

Scott Goudeseune of San Diego, CEO and president of the American Council on Exercise (ACE), concurs. “There has been a lot of discussion about licensure for fitness professionals. While this remains a hot topic for debate, it has yet to be resolved. Many states have attempted to introduce legislation promoting state licensing of fitness professionals. When this occurs, industry leaders such as ACE, IHRSA and many of the other NCCA-accredited fitness certification organizations provide constructive feedback to the sponsoring legislator supporting third-party accreditation as the proven path in ensuring consumer protection.

“An example of where this occurred is the New Jersey Fitness Professionals Certification Act, a bill that was introduced in the New Jersey Senate, but lost momentum after feedback was provided to the bill’s sponsor. It is ACE’s opinion that any proposed legislation with provisions that regulate licensing for fitness industry professionals pursue the time-tested process of implementation and development used by credible third-party accrediting organizations like the NCCA. Accreditation of a credentialing organization by the NCCA is the gold standard for a large majority of well-respected allied healthcare professionals and others professions.”

As the president and CEO of the Boston-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), Joe Moore follows legislation attempts closely. “In recent years, we have seen a rise in volume of legislation that aims to regulate personal trainers. IHRSA has worked in state legislatures, to date successfully, to ensure that this legislation does not impose licensure or certification requirements that would restrict the continued practice of qualified, experienced personal trainers, or that would serve to restrict access of new talented trainers into the industry.

“IHRSA has worked closely with lawmakers in certain cases to assist in the shaping of legislation in order to guarantee that the concerns of the personal training industry are fully taken into consideration. For instance, when we learned in 2009 that a California state senator was working on legislation to require state certification of personal trainers, we worked with that senator to help draft the bill that ultimately mirrored the personal-training standards that IHRSA has recommended since 2002.”

Last year IHRSA succeeded in helping to defeat a proposed New Jersey bill that would have severely restricted personal trainers. Learn more about NJ HB1313, as listed at www.ihrsa.org.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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